Debunking the myth of ‘Israeli fascism’

None of the ailments that heralded the advent of fascist movements in Europe are present in Israel today.

By YIGAL WALT
January 20, 2019 11:53
4 minute read.
Israeli flag

Israeli flag. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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It seems that hardly a week goes by without hearing that Israel is on the fast track to fascism. Government bills, political statements and any (real or imagined) displays of racism are promptly condemned as “fascist” and presented as further proof of the country’s accelerated political and social deterioration. However, these prophecies of doom mostly reflect the ignorance and superficiality characterizing Israel’s cliché-riven and agenda-driven public discourse.

The rise of fascism in the 20th century took place amid abnormal and extreme circumstances. A traumatized Europe was facing severe economic and social strains in the wake of World War I, as well as the menace of a Bolshevik Revolution that threatened to spread across the continent. In these chaotic times, especially in fragile democracies much younger than current-day Israel, violent ultra-nationalist movements emerged as a counterweight to the threats of Bolshevism and social disintegration.

Yet the conditions in Israel today are utterly different from these realities; none of the ailments that heralded the advent of fascist movements are present here at this time. One wonders why and how fascism would flourish in a country whose circumstances are so incommensurate with the familiar “fascist model.”

Moreover, while a consensual definition of fascism has proven elusive, most historians agree that it is characterized by a wide array of radical hallmarks that are not “fascist” in and of themselves. After all, ultra-nationalism, political violence and militarism have been present throughout history in contexts that were not fascist at all. Yet in Israel it is customary to excitedly point to any one hallmark or specific incident and attribute it to “fascism” without considering the bigger picture or placing it into any reasonable context.

Consider militarism, which has declined steadily in Israel in recent decades. Enlistment for military service is down and army generals once treated as godlike heroes are now often condemned by both Right and Left. The defense budget’s share of GDP has shrunk dramatically over time, and military expansionism has been curbed. While the IDF has boosted its hold in the West Bank and Golan Heights, it has withdrawn from the Sinai, Gaza and south Lebanon. It is ironic that the Israel of yesteryear, which “anti-fascists” often long for, was considerably more militaristic and aggressive than current-day Israel.

Moreover, it is important to understand the essence of fascism, which distinguishes it from conservative right-wing movements or traditional tyrannies. Fascist forces were fundamentally revolutionary and exceptionally ambitious in seeking to demolish the prevailing order and re-engineer politics and society. This was not a matter of normal political power struggles or rampant populism, but rather of grand aspirations to create a new order, usually under the leadership of the “losers” at the margins of society.

One wonders, do those branding Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev as a grave fascist threat indeed attribute to her revolutionary aims or any ambitious vision beyond a desire to secure a top spot in Likud? Does Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked from upscale northern Tel Aviv epitomize the marginal underdog plotting to upturn society, or merely an archetypal conservative seeking to largely preserve the prevailing order that has been so kind to her? Is Naftali Bennett, the religious hi-tech entrepreneur, the Israeli equivalent of Mussolini and his cohorts, many of whom were anti-clerical atheists who despised the faithful? 

One should also note that historians tend to limit the scope of the fascist spectrum. Experts commonly argue that even regimes that seemingly displayed many hallmarks associated with fascism were not, in fact, fascist. And so, for example, a debate rages on whether Spain under Generalissimo Franco’s rule was indeed fascist, or merely a traditional conservative dictatorship. In any case, Israel does not resemble even borderline fascist states. 

The confusion inherent in the charges of fascism is revealed when one seeks to identify the precise stage in Israel’s supposed fascist evolution. Some argue that the country’s political and social climate resembles 1920s Germany, but historians have warned that such comparisons tend to focus on shallow similarities and ignore prominent differences. Indeed, beyond some superficial parallels, German politics and society in the years before the rise of Nazism bear little resemblance to contemporary Israel.

Others go as far as comparing Israel to early-stage Nazi Germany. Yet the situation in Germany in the first year of Nazi rule was far graver than circumstances in Israel after almost a decade of Netanyahu-led governments. In 1933, the Nazis outlawed other parties and set up the Gestapo and the first concentration camp, Dachau. The two-million strong “Brown Shirts” militia was wreaking havoc on the streets, and more than 25,000 political prisoners were detained in improvised camps across the country. Life in Israel under the current right-wing government is far removed from such realities.

This article does not aim to imply that all is well in Israel these days, or that disturbing displays of racism, intolerance and extreme nationalism are unheard of. Yet it would be wiser to address these and other issues without resorting to baseless charges that see fascist monsters at every corner. Such rhetoric is unhelpful in resolving problems or enlisting political partners, heightens feelings of crisis and doom, legitimizes extreme measures, and mostly radicalizes and poisons the national discourse. 

If there is one lesson to be learned from interwar Europe, it is about the dangers posed by a national conversation that is increasingly dominated by radicals from both sides. The marginalization of moderate voices, on the Right and Left, is bound to destabilize democracy and to lead us in undesirable directions. It would be best not to go there.

The writer is a political researcher and former news editor.

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